Factsheet: Using newsgroups and forums

In any industry it is always worthwhile getting together with like-minded individuals to discuss topics of interest. Whether buying new equipment or discussing management techniques, traditionally trade shows and seminars have always been the main vehicles available, however they are biased to the companies whose wares are being promoted. It would be much better if you could meet up with fellow users to get advice and feedback. The question is: How do you find these people and meet up with them?

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Previously, the solution to this would have been a user group, perhaps set up by the manufacturer, but this would depend on your area of interest - it's fine for the latest office software application but try getting together a bunch of users for a 15-year old machine from a company that perhaps isn't around any more. The answer of course, now lies on the Internet - News Groups and Bulletin Boards (also known as BBS's, discussion groups or forums). These are two very different technologies using different infrastructures, but the appearance and usage is almost the same Newsgroups use an infrastructure called Usenet, whereas bulletin boards appear on standard web pages.

Newsgroups started way back in 1979 in an academic environment and until the early nineties were mainly used by students and those with software-related interests. Nowadays there some 60,000 newsgroups in addition to thousands of bulletin boards on any subject you care to think of.

A news group can be described as 'public, threaded email'. When entering a newsgroup you will see a selection of messages 'posted' by other users. For example, someone may have placed a request for advice and opinions on buying a new product. Other users can then read and reply to this message, with resulting posts being attached to the first message as a thread. This gives you the ability to follow the conversation as it develops.

As with all of the other tasks you use the Internet for (such as email and web browsing), newsgroups are global, which is especially useful when working in such a vertical market, as geography no longer becomes the main obstacle. All you need to do is find one or several newsgroups that are relevant to your subject of interest. So what fantastic software do you need to harness this wealth of information? If you're using Outlook Express to read emails, you already have everything you need - you just need to know your Internet Service Provider's news server name. Alternatively there are many good freeware programs out there, such as Forte's Free Agent ( http://www.forteinc.com/agent/index.php ) that will do the job just as well.

Posting messages on Usenet newsgroups is the virtually same as creating an email if you're using Outlook Express. Once you've configured your system to link to your service provider's newsgroup server you can browse through a list of the thousands of newsgroups, or enter a keyword to shorten your search. Note that this search is searching on the newsgroup titles only, so limit this to a single relevant word. Double click on the newsgroup you wish to view and you'll see what appears to be a list of emails - these are the discussions. Where there is a reply to a discussion this will be marked with a + icon - this can be clicked on to expand the thread. If you want to add your own post to a thread click on New Post or reply.

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Discussion groups/bulletin boards are very similar to Newsgroups, but are web-based. They work in exactly the same way, although you may need to register to use them - this is free on almost all sites. The main difference is the censorship of content that may appear on them, and this is dependent on the owners of the site on which the discussion group is hosted. For example a product manufacturer will no doubt ensure that any posts that are irrelevant or perhaps show their product in a bad light are removed quickly.

There are two ways you will generally want to use newsgroups and forums - you'll either have a question that you want to ask or you may want to find out if someone has already answered the question for someone else. To ask a question on a newsgroup it's as simple as posting an email, and not much different for the web-based forums. If you want to look for previously answered questions, then you're best to start off with the web's most popular search engine - Google. In 2002 Google launched a new service (replacing Deja-News), working in exactly the same way as its search engine counterpart, which trawls through all of the past and present 700,000,000 (!) newsgroup messages and categorises them in a search engine format - just click on the 'Group's menu on the front page of their website. If you know specifically what you're looking for it is well worth performing an advanced search (over the simple keyword search), specifying a search period otherwise you're likely to come across information that could be 10-15 years old! Note that Google only searches Usenet news groups and not web-based forums, although a standard Google search might prove fruitful if your keywords are precise enough.

If your newsgroup search did not deliver, then you need to start hitting the web-based discussion groups. If you find a website that is specific to your requirement that also has a forum you're more likely to either find the answer you're looking for straight away, or get an answer to any of your posts. A good starting point is trade association websites, followed by many of the industry portals that will undoubtedly available for your marketplace.

No doubt you can police your own usage, but what about that of your staff? Of the thousands of newsgroups on Usenet there are hundred that cover less than savoury topics, both in terms of text and downloadable images. If you are allowing staff access to Usenet or web forums it is worth investing in suitable scanning, tracking and blocking software to see what your employees are really looking at. There are also legal aspects that must be taken into consideration. As with emails your company may be liable for postings on a newsgroup that make false or libellous claims. Newsgroups can trace you using a unique number that every computer on the Internet has - an IP address and there have been countless cases where individuals or corporate bodies have felt the long cyber-arm of the law. If you're lucky you might just get a rap on the knuckles. Repeat offenders either get blocked from the newsgroups or get their account terminated with their ISP (Internet Service Provider). Extreme cases result in lawsuits.

To protect themselves, many of the websites that run forums operate in a 'moderated' method, meaning that each message is vetted before it goes live. There are several problems with this, not least the amount of time it consumes for the site's Webmaster. Any site that does this is also effectively censoring material, thus removing any 'unbiased' label it may be seeking to achieve. Also, by vetting material they are essentially approving it, also making them liable in the event of any legal issues. It is more commonplace for sites to operate unmoderated, but to require registration, and for messages to be deleted if they break certain guidelines.

Summary
Discussion groups bring personality back to the Internet; a stark contrast to static web pages and impersonal junk mail - you are talking to real people with real-world problems, or hopefully solutions to your problems. They can be a valuable resource of free information and support as well as a cost-effective method of attracting new customers. If your business is suitable, adding a forum to your website can breathe new life into it by quickly gaining repeat visitors. If you are allowing staff to have access to newsgroups, watch out for both legal implications and time wasting. Newsgroups are an invaluable source of human reference, and used effectively can open up new business opportunities, help you to resolve problems that normally would either cost a great deal in time or money and allow you to put a digital finger on the pulse in very specific areas of interest.

A modified version of this article was first published in International Sheet Metal Review magazine in 2003.

For an in-depth guide to online promotion, buy Marketing your Business here.

Chapter 1.8 within the theory sections of 'Marketing your Business' includes a complete walkthrough of the various forum and newsgroup technologies, and also shows how you can create your own forum to add a pulse to your site. The CD-ROM also contains various Internet-related freeware and trial applications.